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A bewildering country! The long absence of President umaru yar'adua from his duties in Abuja, following his prolonged stay in a saudi arabian hospital, and his refusal to invoke laid-down constitutional provisions to allow Vice-President Jonathan Goodluck to take over, albeit temporarily, has angered Nigerians and threatens the country's nascent democracy. Osasu Obayiuwana reports from Lagos.

WHEN PRESIDENT UMARU MUSA Yar'Adua left Abuja on 23 November for yet another bout of medical treatment abroad, this time in Saudi Arabia, he was supposed to be going for "a check-up", his third such trip since last August (our cover story in March 2009 reported on a separate two-week 'Vacation" he took in Germany in January 2009).

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After three "medical" trips abroad, (there were two back-to-back trips in August and September last year), the exact details of Yar'Adua's state of health remain a mystery to the Nigerian population. When New African spoke to a presidential aide on the matter, he responded with the same level of incredulity expressed by those far away from the corridors of power at Aso Rock, the state house in Abuja.

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"I know as much as the next Nigerian about where he is and how well he is doing. I am just as uncertain as they are. That is the truth of the matter," said the usually well-connected and informed presidential aide.

It is this shroud of confusion, secrecy and obfuscation, regarding a matter central to the health of, and indeed the very survival of Nigeria's fragile democracy, which is keeping the polity on edge.

The fury of Nigerians increases with each passing day, with the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka leading thousands of people in a demonstration to the National Assembly on 12 January, demanding an explanation for the Assembly's inertia in tackling, constitutionally, the political vacuum created by Yar'Adua's absence.

And as if the ailing president heard their cries of protest, he finally broke his 50-day silence. In a telephone conversation with the BBC Hausa Service, a feeble-sounding Yar'Adua said that he was "getting better from the treatment. I hope that very soon there will be tremendous progress, which will allow me to get back home."

He added: "As soon as my doctors discharge me, I will return to Nigeria to resume my duties. I wish, at this stage, to thank all Nigerians for their prayers for my good health, and for their prayers for the nation. 1 would also like to use this opportunity to wish our team, the Super Eagles, success in our Nations Cup matches in Angola."

His BBC interview dispelled widespread rumours that he had died. But the decision to make his first statement to the BBC, rather than the National Assembly, did not go down well. "The attorney-general of the federation told this House that the president would address this chamber by a video link. But he has not done so. Instead, he has spoken to the BBC," said an angry senator, Nuhu Aliyu, speaking at a senate debate convened to discuss the matter.

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With fears that a restive section of Nigeria's military could be considering yet another coup, Olusegun Obasanjo, Yar'Adua's predecessor, and former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, reportedly spent the Christmas period counselling them against such a move, which would be suicidal for the country.

On 21 January 2010, Obasango, sitting alongside Winnie Mandela at an international conference in Abuja, said that before he picked Yar'Adua for the presidency, he "knew that [he] had a a kidney problem and required dialysis [treatment] for which he went abroad while he was the governor of Katsina State."

Obasanjo said: "Before I picked him, I asked him questions and he gave me the medical report that said he no longer needed dialysis. I asked medical experts to interpret the report and they told me that once you have completed your dialysis, you have had a successful kidney transplant, and can live as God wants you to live ... If medical experts say that, who am I to begin to think the dialysis may fail?"

When asked why he picked Yar'Adua despite his ailment and whether he did so deliberately, Obasanjo replied: "How can I, who have made huge sacrifices for the country, do what will not be in the interest of the nation? Nobody picked Yar'Adua [knowing] that he will not perform. If I did that, may God punish me ..."

When asked if Yar'Adua should resign, Obasanjo said: "If you take up an assignment, a job, and your health starts to fail and you are not able to deliver, to satisfy yourself and the people you are supposed to serve, then there is the path of honour and the path of morality ... [i.e. resignation]."

The latest palaver

Yar'Adua's most recent health problems, according to Salihu Banye, the president's personal physician, began at "about 3 pm on Friday, 20 November, after he returned from the Abuja Central Mosque where he performed the Juma'at prayers. The president complained of severe chest pain on the left side. Preliminary medical examinations suggested acute pericarditis (a disease which causes the inflammation of the membrane-rhe pericardium-surrounding the heart).

"It was then decided that he should undertake confirmatory checks at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he had his last medical check-up in August [2009]," Salihu said.

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After receiving initial treatment, a spokesman at the hospital said the president was "in good condition and was responding well to treatment" and was even expected to "perform a pilgrimage to Mecca", though Yar'Adua himself told Segun Adeniyi, his chief spokesman, that this was not the case. But the explanation given by Salihu Banye, regarding the president's condition, is not as straightforward as it appears.

Dr Ore Falomo, one of Nigeria's most experienced doctors and the personal physician of the late Moshood Abiola-who won Nigeria's aborted 1992, presidential elections-has publicly accused Yar'Adua's aides of being economical with the truth.

"We now know that pericarditis is the last condition that took him to Saudi Arabia ... [But Salihu Banye] did not tell us that in addition to that, the President was suffering from other ailments. The frequency of his trips to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, before we came to the present situation, showed that he needed regular review and follow-up, which the country was not told about," Falomo said, adding:

"To some of us [with medical expertise], we know that [a simple diagnosis of pericarditis] cannot be and is not true ... We know that if it is the first time he is having pericarditis, he doesn't need to lose sleep over it, because he would recover from it and return to his seat. But when you have pericarditis on top of other debilitating problems, then the condition is grave ... Is it simply an isolated case of pericarditis ot a retrogression of the health of our president that led to this pericarditis, because it is an auto-immune disease?"

Unintended consequences?

Yar'Adua's prolonged absence has, once again, brought to the fore the strength of character--or perhaps the lack of it--of those that run the country's executive and legislative arms. As was reported by New African in March 2009, the status of Vice-President Jonathan Goodluck, in the absence of the president, who declined to hand the reins of power temporarily to him, has elicited fierce debate.

Under Section 145 of the 1999 constitution ("acting president during the temporary absence of the president"), it is stated that: "Whenever the president transmits to the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives a written declaration that he is proceeding on vacation or that he is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, until he transmits to them written declaration to the contrary, such functions shall be discharged by the vice-president as acting president."

The common-sense interpretation of this would be that Vice-President Goodluck cannot assume the functions of the president when Yar'Adua goes on vacation, unless the president has formally written to parliament that he is doing so.

Although Yar'Adua declined to hand over power temporarily to Goodluck, the ailing president signed the 2009 supplementary budget from his sick bed in Saudi Arabia. "The principal secretary to the president [David Edevbie] took the document to Jeddah on Sunday [27 December] for the president's assent and returned to Abuja yesterday [on 29 December]," Segun Adeniyi said. According to Michael Aondoakaa, the controversial attorney-general and minister for justice, no circumstances have arisen that require any constitutional provisions to be invoked, and the president reserves the legal right "to rule from anywhere" he pleases.

That comment attracted the ire of Donald Duke, the former governor of Cross River State. "When he tells us that the president can rule from anywhere, that is an insult to us as Nigerians," Duke said, speaking for many people in the country.

Duke, one of Nigeria's new generation of intelligent, forward-thinking leaders who was touted as a potential vice-president for Yar'Adua in 2006, observed that the constitution never foresaw a situation where the president would travel out for so long, and accused Aondoakaa of exploiting a lacuna in the law to create confusion in the polity.

"When there is no provision in the constitution, conventions take over and the convention is that the president will govern from his home country, preferably from the capital," Duke contended.

In a dramatic twist of events on 13 January, Dan Abutu, the chief justice of the Federal High Court in Abuja, ruled, following an action brought before him, that Vice-President Goodluck had the authority to assert the powers of the presidency.

"By virtue of section 5 of the 1999 Constitution, the vice-president can perform the executive functions of the president pending the time he returns," Abutu ruled. However, he warned that the provisions of Section 145 should be followed if Goodluck was to become acting president.

Elephant in the room

A refusal of Nigeria's cabinet to subsequently invoke Section 144 of the constitution ("permanent incapacity of the president or vice-president"), if only to discuss the issue of the president's capacity to govern, has done little in the cynical eyes of the public to prove the cabinet's determination to adhere to their oaths to "protect and defend" the constitution, even at the expense of their prestigious jobs or upsetting their boss.

Section 144 states that "the president [or his vice] shall cease to hold office if by a resolution of two-thirds majority of all the members of the executive council [cabinet] of the federation, it is declared that the president or vice-president is incapable of discharging the functions of his office."

At the time of going to press, the matter of the president's health--or whether he is fit to continue in office--had not been the major subject of any cabinet meeting. Dora Akunyili, the information minister, had no idea of when her boss would be returning to work.

The most telling, and damaging, international consequence of Yar'Adua's absence was the inability of the US president, Barack Obama to confer with him, following the near-fatal plan of the 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab to blow up the Christmas Day Delta Airlines flight 253 from the Dutch capital, Amsterdam, to the American city of Detroit.

Umar Farouk, an engineering graduate of the prestigious University College, London, and son of Umaru Mutallab--a former Nigerian cabinet member, former managing director of the United Bank for Africa (UBA) and recently retired chairman of First Bank--had an explosive device in his underpants, which he was unable to detonate on the plane.

The immediate consequence of his action is that Nigeria has been exposed to further odium by being placed on the "terrorist watch list" of countries whose flights to the USA will be subjected to enhanced security measures. When Vice-President Goodluck met Jane Holl Lutte, the US assistant secretary of state for homeland security in Abuja in January, he asked that Nigeria be taken off the list. Although Lute flattered Nigeria, describing it as being America's "best and oldest friend", it is not expected that Washington will reverse the decision in the near future.

But America's decision to blacklist Nigeria does little to hide the abysmal failure of its own security agencies--the CIA, FBI and the Department of Homeland Security--to act on the warning, given by Umaru Mutallab to the US embassy in Nigeria, that his son had been "radicalised" by Islamic fundamentalists in Yemen and needed their help to bring him back home.

As The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, succinctly observed: "The most important, interesting--and, yes, heroic--figure in the whole Christmas Day Delta airliner affair was the would-be bomber's father ... Mutallab did something that, as far as we know, no other parent of a suicide bomber has done: He went to the US embassy in Nigeria and warned us that text messages from his son revealed that he was in Yemen and had become a fervent, and possibly dangerous, radical."

Acknowledging Muttalab's courage in reporting his son to the authorities, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has invited him to address them.

What's the end game?

If Nigeria's power brokers are determined to ignore laid-down constitutional provisions to deal with the evident power vacuum, there is little hope that the country's internal and external difficulties will abate in the near future. But perhaps the silver lining in the very dark cloud is that the current chapter in Nigeria's history might compel its people to fight for the supremacy of its constitution and the much-vaunted "rule of law".
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Title Annotation:NIGERIA
Author:Obayiuwana, Osasu
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Feb 1, 2010
Words:2197
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